A Gift of Whales

Genesis 1:21 (NIV)
So God created the great creatures of the sea . . . And God saw that it was good.

I see whales as gifts from their Creator from a couple different perspectives. First is the fact that they exist — they are alive on earth. Similar, but on a deeper level, is the capacity of some people to appreciate them for the magnificent creatures that they are. Just seeing whales in the wild can inspire peoples’ feelings of happiness, excitement, thankfulness, and even awe. An up-close encounter with a creature half again as long as the 30-foot boat one is watching from is an unforgettable experience, likely to turn many people into instant whale fans and conservationists.

That describes my present thinking, but my interest in whales got off to a slow start. Early in my career as an oceanographer, we often saw whales at a distance during survey cruises, but with our normal tight work schedule, we rarely had time for a closer look. When I first began chartering in 1987 with the 21-foot Sound Runner, I knew that I wanted to try whale-watching tours, but I didn’t have much to go on about how and where to start. My own whale sightings in the Sound had been few. In the early 1980’s, during my very first trips into the Sound aboard the family’s 14-foot inflatable, we occasionally saw orcas in Port Wells, several miles out of Whittier. However, I had never seen any humpbacks in that area until a few years later, when I saw a lone humpback near Tebenkoff Glacier while pulling shrimp pots. Then again not far from there in May 1989, near Culross Passage, while returning to Whittier from a personal oil spill recon survey aboard the Sound Runner with three other volunteer observers.

I next saw humpbacks in the Sound in 1992, after I had taken a break from chartering to resume work as a wildlife biologist on Exxon Valdez oil spill projects for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). I first saw more than one humpback together in the Sound during a seabird recon trip with a colleague around smaller islands east of Knight Island in a 25’ survey boat.

My first close encounter with humpbacks happened in late May the very next year on another oil spill seabird project with the USFWS. We were cruising the shoreline of the Sound, looking for nesting colonies of pigeon guillemots (puffin cousins), which had been hit hard by the spill. Guillemots are the most active in spring and early summer in the early morning, when they gather in groups to socialize and court on the water near their nesting colonies. That’s when we patrolled the shorelines looking for groups of guillemots, ending by about 10 AM, when the birds’ activity began to wane.

One day, my field partner and I had just finished the morning’s work, and we were drifting in our 25-foot survey boat just west of Little Smith Island. We were enjoying the flat-calm, sunny weather, and not needing to look for guillemots any more, we began to notice whale “blows” near Eleanor Island, 4-5 miles to the west. That may seem like an impossibly long distance to see a whale’s blow, but the bright sunshine caused the 15-20-foot-high blows to fairly glow against the island’s spruce forest background.

I remembered that a whale-biologist colleague (John D. Hall) in the USFWS project that brought me to Alaska in 1975 had told me how he “called” humpbacks by tapping the side of his boat with a hard object. I had always wondered about the validity of his claim, so here was a chance to see for myself. Tap, tap, tap; wait several seconds. Tap, tap — tap, tap, tap, and wait again. Lo and behold, it worked! The blows were soon closer to our boat, then closer still. Two whales were swimming directly toward us! Not knowing quite what to expect, I kept tapping every several seconds. Within minutes the whales were very close, and then, to our thrilled amazement, they swam right under the boat! They were so shallow that they tripped the boat’s shallow depth alarm, set at 12 feet. What a thrilling experience! That very first close encounter with humpbacks made a deep impression on me. Little did I know then that that experience was but a harbinger of many similar close encounters that followed several years later after I began whale-watching tours.

When I first tried whale-watching during my first season with the 21-foot Sound Runner in 1987, however, I had only vague ideas about what to do. The very first whale trip was in early June, and remembering that close encounter near Little Smith Island, as well as those distant glimpses of whale blows while on the seabird recon survey east of Knight Island five years earlier, I headed the boat in that direction. The day was clear and calm, and we slowly motored through that broad area at the northern end of Montague Strait, scanning with binoculars in all directions. The area seemed so vast, and so empty of whales. Not a whale was to be found on the trip.

The next whale trip followed that August, and we didn’t see any whales then either. Then, during a glacier trip to Harriman Fjord on September 13, we came upon a pod of 12 to 15 orcas near Esther Rock, in the southeast corner of Port Wells. During the last whale trip of the year two days later, we again explored the broad area between Knight and Montague Islands, and again found no whales of any kind. I knew I had a lot to learn.

My first experience of silently asking God for help finding whales came the very next year. We were about three hours into a whale watching trip, heading south at the southern end of Knight Island Passage. We had seen nary a whale, and I was growing increasingly anxious. Not only had we not yet found any whales, but I didn’t have a clue about where to head next. That part of the Sound is a complex confluence of several waterways, from where we could go west into Whale and Icy Bays, east through lower Knight Island Passage to Montague Strait, or keep heading mostly south through a choice of four smaller passages to the Gulf of Alaska.

In what followed, I didn’t actually “hear” a voice telling me where to go next, but I had the thought to head closer to the south shore of Knight.  From where we were just off Squire Island, at the southwest corner of Knight, we headed east past Lucky Bay, with the southeast shoreline of Mummy Bay in view directly ahead. Within minutes, there was a blow! Then another and another – not just one, but three humpbacks! They were heading slowly north along the eastern shoreline of the bay. Soon, after a series of blows by the whales, all three of them “fluked,” signaling deep dives.

As we slowly headed eastward across the mouth of Mummy Bay toward where the whales had gone down, we were suddenly distracted by splashes near the shoreline to our left — too big to be another salmon that we had seen jumping off and on all morning. I slowed the boat to check out the commotion. Within seconds, there was another big splash, followed by the clear silhouette of a minke whale’s pointed snout parting the water. A lunge-feeding minke whale! Wow! Not only the three humpbacks, but the added bonus of seeing a feeding minke so close. The minke’s head came out of the water a couple more times, about the same time the humpbacks blew and surfaced again, farther into the bay. For the next twenty minutes, we paced along a respectable distance to one side of the three humpbacks, as they headed toward the head of the bay. Then I remembered that I had asked God to show us whales, and here was the answer — not more than several minutes after that silent prayer, not just one, but four whales of two different species. God is good.

Then, in 1998, my passengers and I had what was my first encounter with a large group of humpback whales. On this trip, we headed east out of Passage Canal, transited Wells Passage, and headed southeast through Lone Passage and around the north end of the Knight Island archipelago. We had seen no whales, but kept heading south and southeast again past Smith and Seal Islands, then Applegate Shoal, all the while still seeing no whales. We kept heading south, intending to continue clockwise around the east end of Green Island and then southwest along the inner coastline of Montague Island, the largest of the barrier islands separating the Sound from the open Gulf of Alaska.

As we passed the eastern end of Green, with Montague’s impressive spine of glacier-clad mountains as a backdrop, we saw our first blowthen another and another and another. For the next 45 minutes, we were rarely out of sight of one or more blowing or diving humpback whales. It was impossible to get an accurate count with so many whales blowing in so many directions, but in my boat log for the day, I wrote “at least 15-20 humpbacks.” It was about noon, so we just drifted among the diving and blowing whales, ate lunch and watched the action. Then my passengers actually got bored with just seeing blowing and diving whales, and we motored on from the area.

To be continued in the near future — with pictures and words about many of the close, often spectacular encounters that followed over the years.

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